The recent controversy over the return of an army soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, from enemy captivity in Afghanistan overshadowed the fact that he was not the only American POW (prisoner of war). There was another, marine corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, who was allegedly taken during 2004 while serving in Iraq. A month later he showed up in Lebanon, telling U.S. embassy officials that he had been kidnapped in Iraq and taken to Lebanon where he had escaped, or something like that. Hassoun was returned to the U.S. where the marines tried to sort out what really happened. At the end of 2004 Hassoun was allowed to visit his family in California and there he disappeared again. He was recently arrested in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and returned to the United States for prosecution. This time there was no doubt that he deserted and the marines are still interested in finding out what exactly happened in 2004. Many marine investigators believe that Hassoun, who spoke Arabic and was serving as a translator (instead of his usual job as a truck driver) developed some sort of local friendships and let his emotions get the better of him.
The other “deserter” (Bergdahl) was released from Taliban captivity in June 2014. This was because of a secret deal whereby the U.S. released five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay (since 2002) in exchange for Bergdahl who was, technically, the only American military prisoner the Taliban held. Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers accuse him of deserting and villagers around the base Bergdahl walked away from in 2009 reported that this deranged and unarmed American soldier had come through asking how to get in contact with the Taliban. The Taliban eventually got the message and took Bergdahl prisoner. The U.S. Army was in an embarrassing position here and tried to suppress the views of soldiers who knew Bergdahl while pretending Bergdahl was a legitimate prisoner of war. That all fell apart when Bergdahl was released and foreign journalists heard the complaints from Afghanistan (at all levels) about the absurdity of freeing five dangerous Taliban leaders in exchange for a deranged deserter. Meanwhile the Taliban declared the exchange a great victory and urged their men to kidnap more Americans so that the Taliban could push for more such trades. Foreigners working in Afghanistan complained that the Bergdahl exchange put them all in more danger.
During the decade after September 11, 2001 there were thousands of American deserters each year, mostly from the army and marines. Very few of these were in a combat zone (like Iraq or Afghanistan) because it’s difficult to get out of a combat zone without official assistance. Desertion in the U.S. army peaked at 4,698 in 2007 and has fallen since then to about a thousand a year. This is about .3 percent of the total force. This decline is due to less combat, fewer troops overseas and higher quality recruits. Up until 2006 there were fewer deserters in the U.S. military each year, and this was after Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded. In 2005, the rate was .24 percent of the total force per year. That was down from the Vietnam era high (in 1971) of 3.4 percent (more than twice the 2007 rate). Actually, there was another upward trend in the late 1990s (peaking at about .45 percent on September 11, 2001), nearly doubling from the rate in the early 1990s.
After 2001, the rate started coming down, and was lower each year until 2006. At this point, more troops were overseas (mainly in Iraq), there was more combat and recruiting was more difficult. Standards were lowered, and it was known that lower quality recruits were more difficult to train, and more likely to desert. Technically, a soldier deserts after they have been absent (without permission) for more than a month. Before that, they are AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave), which is a less serious offence. But repeated AWOLs can get you tossed out of the military.
Most desertions are usually the result of personal problems, and in recognition of that the U.S. Army changed the way it handled deserters after September 11, 2001. Instead of promptly discharging deserters (most of whom either turn themselves in after a few months, or get picked up the next time they show ID to a cop), they were sent back to their unit. The deserter has a talk with his (most deserters are men) commanding officer. In a growing number of cases, the deserter was given another chance, and often succeeded at finishing their enlistment and becoming eligible for veteran’s benefits.
What has shocked so many observers is that the military, despite a decade of war and a lot of anti-war coverage in the media, recruiting, retention (troops staying in when they could leave) and morale remained high. A lot of this has to do with the volunteer force. There have been no draftees in the army since the early 1970s. Then there was the generally high quality of the volunteer troops. This meant the troops were more effective, and they knew it. For example, troops were over 60 percent less likely to get killed in combat than their counterparts in Vietnam or World War II. It was a very different military and the lower desertion rate is only part of it.